PLOT SPOILERS AHOY!
Lately, it seems like everybody has been saying how the new box-set-ready, extended-storyline TV shows resemble novels. Those of us who have already been through this, when comics went graphic-novelable are likely to be a little more skeptical. In a way, the problem didn't come before, in the old days of perpetual deferment when you knew Doctor Doom would never defeat the Fantastic Four but neither would he ever repent or go away. Yes, plotlines did often resemble zombies – lurching endlessly forwards. But you just expected things to be like that and then they were. In a way, the problem lies all in the supposed fix. Things can now fall into a kind of uncanny valley, where the transition from serial to novel is not fully made and shows make promises they prove perpetually unable to cash.
As the record shows, I was very much a fan of the first season of 'The Walking Dead'. Now it's completed it's third (at least on terrestrial TV in the UK, you may well be ahead), it may be a good time to take it as a test case. Is it using it's extra elbow room to extend and develop? Or is it just lurching forwards from one season to the next? (Did you see what I did there? I used a zombie metaphor for... oh, okay.)
The previous two seasons had effectively set Dale up as the moral compass of the group, the one who'd argue survival was not worth any price. Killing him off just as they are thrown out of the relative safety of the farm, then having Rick announce they're no longer a democracy, this suggests a group adrift even as they find a new holdout in the prison. (True, Dale's role is effectively taken over by Hershel. But it still has much of the intended effect.)
In a world no longer dominated by humans, how much humanity have they actually held on to? The show's innovation on zombie lore, that you will always come back as a 'walker' no matter how you die, underlines this. They just seem our future, no matter how long we manage to defer it. One apparently incidental scene is key – they drive past a backpacker who screams to them for help, yet they silently decline to pick him up.
Now zombies – they don't really do much, do they? Characterisation does not attach itself naturally to them. A good zombie story knows to use them not as antagonists but as plot enablers, like storms, stampedes or the onset of war. What's more zombies, can coexist. Obliviously rather than out of neighbourliness, but coexist nonetheless. So in every chapter of Romero's classic 'Dead' trilogy, the conflicts and tensions are all between rival groups of humans.
And, despite all the differences to Romero, so it is here. (The season tagline was “fear the dead, fight the living.”) And for the primary antagonism a clever switch is pulled. Rick's team, dysfunctionally grappling with group decision-making, are the ones who lock themselves into some prison cells. While the apparently normal, open streets of Woodbury turn out to be ruled by the ruthless gloved fist of the Governor. (Attaching 'bury' to the town's name is presumably some subliminal hint.) He states that people are attached to it because it reminds them of what was, leaving implicit that the similarity is only skin-deep.
It works something like the Pegasus storyline in the second season of 'Battlestar Galactica'. Despite the dire circumstances, there's no real conflict over territory or resources; formally, the two groups could easily coexist. The battle is more ideological, over retaining some fidelity to the old human world, versus embracing the brutality of the new one. One must submit to the other.
Except of course there's a twist. Hitler once said the best result for the Nazis would not be their defeating their enemies, but their enemies becoming like them in order to fight them. The Governor would doubtless concur, and Rick's group always seem on the point of slipping into this. As their new moral compass, Hershell has to put in the overtime.
More, the conflict becomes so entrenched that everyone in the vicinity cannot help but be drawn into the orbit of one camp or the other. And perhaps the majority of screen time is devoted to this playing out, the central conflict reproducing between or even within individuals. Brother gets pitted against brother, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. But let's look how it affects the two biggest loners of the show, newcomer Michonne and returning character Merle. (Notably both are represented by blades, Michonne's sword and Merle's strap-on knife replacing his severed hand.)
A survivalist to the bone, Michonne distrusts Woodbury even before she has any real reason to. While, the very inverse of Dale, Merle decides that survival lies in a willingness to undertake any task - no matter how distasteful. He'll swap between camps just as the wind blows. Accused by Michonne that his obeying-orders excuse is “like the Gestapo”, he readily agrees. Inevitably, the finale is based around the conflict between them. And just like the camps – there's a switch. It's the loner Michonne who finds a home, while it's port-in-any-storm Merle who returns to Woodbury to do what damage he can.
Its surprising that Michonne doesn't feel like a forced piece in this character-based show. Unlike everybody else, she looks like she could have come from one of Romero's films; she's very much the successor to Ben in 'Night' and Peter in 'Dawn'. All three are based on cultural associations of black people with greater strength and self-reliance. (Notably the other significant black character, T-Dog, is done away with before Michonne first associates with the group.) But with her samurai sword and imposing hoodie she also appears very much an icon or avatar, like a cross between Alice in 'Resident Evil' and the Bride in 'Kill Bill.' (Her first appearance, at the tail-end of the previous season, is a classic WTF moment.)
It works because the show responds to this disjunction by exploiting it. She's presented in a similar way to Elektra from the original Daredevil comics, revealing occasional glimmers of the person under the stark facade. (Though even as the season closes, we've still only had hints as to her personal history.) This essentially allows us to have it both ways. We exult in her badass cool, her strong-and-silent presence, her dexterity with a blade, but then applaud as she learns how to play alongside the other kids.
The above is quite a partial account, skipping over plotlines and bypassing many characters. But perhaps that's inevitable, given the ground to cover. The season lays themes and develops characters slowly and patiently over the episodes. The more time you invest in it, the more you are paid back. It even manages to combine this with an apparent arbitrariness, with the shock of the unexpected always around the corner. (One established but minor character starts to be built up, whereupon he's killed off literally mid-sentence.)
And yet it seems to fail the final hurdle. One positive feature of the earlier Shane plotline was that it built up week by week and was then brought to a conclusion. Yet by failing to give us the final confrontation with the Governor the show lapses back into that zombie state of perpetual deferment. The Governor is not an rogue's gallery figure who can be brought back at regular intervals. Deprived of this season's themes, no longer in charge of Woodbury, he's just going to become a bad guy with an eye patch. To reduce him to some sort of Hooded Claw to Michonnes' Penelope Pitstop, perpetually reappearing to tie her to some railway line or other, that would take nothing forward but only detract from what has gone before.
It doesn't even make any internal sense. It might well be in character for him to slaughter his own troops once they'd questioned his sacrosanct orders. But with no reason to suppose any witnesses survived he'd surely ride back to Woodbury, blame the whole thing on Rick's group and start plotting their downfall all over again. Woodbury, even after his daughter's death, has seemed his world until that point.
Finally, whatever possessed them to take one of the best shows currently on TV and bump it down the schedules to Channel 5*? A channel whose very name looks like a typo. A channel I'd never previously watched, which I'm not sure I even knew existed. And one I'm now likely to forget about again unless 'The Walking Dead' comes back to it.